The recent murder of Maltese mother Chantelle Chetcuti has shocked the nation. There can never be an excuse for this, nor should there ever be.
As Malta tries to understand how this happened, there has been an avalanche of publications on the subject of domestic violence, including for tougher measures to be introduced immediately.
The thing is, tougher measures were already introduced 24 months ago with the implementation of the Istanbul Convention, back in February 2018.
Recent statistics show that over the last 12 months, there are on average four domestic violence reports to the police per day. Yet, these have resulted in only 12 successful convictions.
Alarming? What exactly is going wrong?
While Malta needs to ensure proper protections for victims at risk of violence, it must also ensure that the procedure in discovering who is being abusive in a relationship is as waterproof – otherwise, we run the risk of parties abusing the system and victimising innocents legally.
1. The current law as it stands may be biased against the accused, especially if they are men.
How often do you read about a female being accountable for the violence she’s committed? Not often, considering the law itself can be considered to be aimed at finding the man guilty.
It goes without saying that women commit domestic abuse also, both physical and mental – and there remains a stigma attached to a man walking into a police station and filing a report over this.
With the current law seemingly working under the maxim guilty until proven innocent, one has to take a closer look and ask whether this could be the exact reason the report statistics are so high, compared with a complete failure of the conviction rate.
2. So, what actually happens when a domestic violence incident is reported to the police?
The police will either arrive at the scene or the individual will go to the police station, and the police will start by checking the injuries of the victim. The police will then take that individual to the nearest health centre for a doctor to certify that there is an injury.
This now triggers the DASH high-risk assessment to be asked to the alleged victim by an Appoġġ worker or the police.
It is 27 tick-box questions of yes or no answers, and if the individual answered yes to 17 questions or above this instantly classifies the case as ‘high risk’.
The broadness of the ‘high risk’ classification has caused controversy alone around the judiciary of Malta for the past 18 months with magistrates, lawyers and police calling for a change in procedure.
In fact, a recent British study found that the DASH high risk assessment produces results which can be classified as no better than random.
3. The law leans heavily on a questionnaire that can lead to instant and grave consequences for the accused, labelling them guilty with very little investigation.
Once the individual scores over 17 – again no proof or due diligence carried out by the authorities – this can instantly trigger the arrest of the accused who will then be questioned by the police to give their side of the story.
If found to be a risk to the woman, they can then be charged and thrown into lock-up for 36 hours, then taken to criminal court and arraigned.
4. Prosecution generally asks that a protection order is granted in favour of the plaintiff/victim.
No magistrate would ever risk not issuing a protection order in favour of the plaintiff as there would be outrage if the accused went on to commit again and it will be the magistrate’s fault for not issuing that protection order.
The issue of bail is up to the magistrate. However, the bail conditions set will nearly always state that the accused will be removed from the home immediately as standard procedure.
They’ll be thrown out, and told not to approach the plaintiff and not to frequent anywhere they might as well.
5. However, the person might not even receive bail as they must show the court there and then they have a place to live.
Some individuals have been sent to prison simply because they had no other place to go.
So this now beggars the question: How many such individuals are right now sitting in Corradino Correctional Facility waiting for their criminal case to begin, which itself can take up to months to begin?
6. This ‘silver bullet’ of being able to remove your partner from your home that is easily open to abuse.
It’s that simple to remove your partner from your home. And many have insinuated that legal advisors have in fact done just that, advising their clients to use it if they can’t afford to separate from their partners in a legal manner amicably.
If an individual wants to split with their partner, how easy it has become to remove that partner from the family home, forcing them into turmoil and a lengthy family court battle.
7. Within 48 hours of the assessment being made, the accused can expect a battle for custody, education choices and maintenance payments.
During this time, the alleged victim’s lawyers may use the fact that the accused has a protection order against him in a family court case.
Once again, we are returning to the guilty until proven innocent maxim and this simply cannot be ignored anymore.
8. If a false accusation of domestic violence has been made, a lot can happen in the first 72 hours.
But the best is yet to come – non-payment of child maintenance is also a criminal offence in Malta so the accused is not getting out of this one either… let alone the other bills and having to find a new residence to live. That is, if they were not denied bail or had to go to prison.
The accused can expect to spend the best part of a year in the criminal courts, and once that is done, there is still the matter of the family courts. Even if the accused is found innocent in the criminal courts, they must pass through the criminal courts either way.
9. Not everyone accused of domestic violence is innocent, but not every domestic violence report has truthful intention either.
Right now, the law can be exploited by devious individuals and unscrupulous lawyers.
This law as it stands has been ripping families apart and throwing men onto the streets throughout Europe for years. It has failed the family unit and has been open to rampant abuse.
Malta is at a crossroads; it can stand up and do the right thing by making the needed changes to this law, or continue to go down the same road as many other countries.
Ashley Galea is a father who has gone through the Maltese justice system and seen how it works firsthand.
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